I did a lot of work over this fall break. Unfortunately for my grades (but fortunately for my mental health), almost none of it was school work. I babysat my nephew and changed my first diaper with little to no drama (the second diaper? yeah, that’s a totally different story). I watched all the new shows that had been piling up in my DVR for months. I wrote letters to my friends teaching in Europe, cleaned out my car…
And then reality hit. But in the best possible way.
I graduated from my undergrad in May, so everything I did that semester- including my thesis- is still fresh in my mind. I wrote my thesis on A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and I’m not too ashamed to admit that I was obsessed with it. I re-read it every few days, even when I didn’t need to. Honestly, for the six months that I was working on my thesis, Possession was probably my best friend (#pathetic). I know it better than I know any other living person, probably.
As I was cleaning out my car, I found a box of books in my trunk that I had forgotten to unpack after I moved out of the apartment I had lived in my last year of college. The book on the very top my my copy of Possession; it’s a bit frightful looking at it now, with multi-colored Post-Its sticking out at almost every page and the pages themselves covered with almost more of my notes than actual text. But I was glad to see it, and pretty much started to re-read it immediately. I’ve found a lot of wisdom in that book, but I was surprised that it still had things left to tell me- things that put my current Early Minority Literature class into better perspective.
Let me give you a brief summary of what it’s about, and then I’ll tell you why this book written in the 1980s relates to Early Minority Lit. Because it does. Oh, it does.
The book starts off with a dude named Roland (the names in this book are the best, trust me) who is pretty down on his luck. He has his PhD but nobody wants to hire him because the job market sucks (hmmm, sounds like my future). He’s got a part-time job at the Ash factory, where a bunch of scholars are working on the biography of Randolph Henry Ash, a famous Victorian poet who is basically the book’s version of Wordsworth or Browning.
Anyways, poor timid Roland goes to a Special Collections Library at the beginning of the book (now we’re getting somewhere!) and as he’s digging through an old journal of Ash’s for his boss he ends up finding a secret compartment that has drafts of a love letter… but the letter isn’t to Ash’s wife.
Roland, of course, finally shows a backbone by committing a crime and stealing the letter (which I would NEVER DO, Dr. May, I PROMISE). He ends up going on a wild journey through the past to discover the truth, and ends up finding things out about his hero that he’d never, ever expected, and he himself is irrevocably changed in the process.
When we visited the Special Collections at UTA last Thursday I had Roland’s story imprinted in my mind the entire time. You see, it’s easy for us as readers so far separated from the subjects of our reading to view them as… well. Fictional. It’s hard to remember that these were people that lived and breathed and fought and struggled, just like we ourselves are doing now. Roland himself had that problem when he was studying Ash; he put him on a pedestal because he loved his work, and didn’t seem to remember that he was an actual person- at least, not until he found those love letters.
I’ll admit, it was easy to put William Apess, the Pequot man whose works we read this week, in the “fictional, and therefore not very important” box, at first. I was distracted when I first started reading A Son of the Forest; it had taken me forever to try to figure out how to buy the darn book (apparently I needed to update Google Chrome), and then I made the mistake of keeping the TV on as I started to read and got distracted by the newest episode of Modern Family.
Once I finally started to read for real, though, with no distractions, I was astounded at how much I had missed during my first half-hearted skim. I suppose the first time it hit me that Apess was a person, not just a distant fictional character, was when he was describing his grandparents who “were not the best people in the world.” He said that they “would drink to excess whenever they could procure rum” and that when intoxicated they would “at times turn upon their unoffending grandchildren and beat them in a most cruel manner.”
His talk of this abuse, which he “merely [relates]… without any embellishment or exaggeration, to show the reader how [they] were treated,” really hit home for me that this was a real person that had experienced these horrors (Apress 11). That was gut-wrenching, to be honest. It’s hard to be forcibly torn away from your safe distance from a text and have to deal with the reality of it.
Roland experienced the same thing in Possession; he comes face to face with the fact that his hero, who wrote the poems that he dedicated his life to studying, may not be as heroic as he once believed. While that’s hard, it is ultimately a good thing, both for us and for the historical figures that we are studying.
Apess’s work is fairly incredible; in fact, his autobiography A Son of the Forest “deserves attention as one of the earliest – if not the earliest – autobiographies written and published by a Native American.” That alone makes Apess a writer of sincere merit, but the struggles that he details over the course of his life and spiritual journey also make it a good read, all the more interesting and thrilling since it is an actual person’s story.
A few of my classmates and I have plans to go back to UTA’s Special Collections a bit later this week to do our own archival research. I will admit that I’m horribly excited about it, and that I plan to try to find some love letters; I may be done with Possession, having finished the book a hundred times already, but it is certainly not done with me. I very much doubt that I’ll find something as exciting as Roland did, which will change the course of academia forever, but if I keep in mind that I’m reading a real person’s work, like I remembered with Apess’s writings, then I will certainly continue to be thrilled.